It’s a known fact that most people don’t explore the touristy sites right in their own backyards. If you took a random poll of people who live in this area, many would likely say they’ve never been to see the Liberty Bell or Carpenter’s Hall, the Betsy Ross House, the Rocky statue or the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Even though people travel hundreds, even thousands, of miles to visit this historic hotbed that we call home, many of us locals never bother to hop on a train, call an Uber or drive the 10 to 20 minutes into the city to visit the treasure trove of interesting attractions that are only a stone’s throw away from us.
Admittedly, it’s easy to forget all of our nearby gems and take them for granted. Ask New Yorkers how often they visit the Statue of Liberty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Empire State Building and you’d likely get the same responses. Nearby attractions just become part of our normal, everyday landscapes and daily experiences. We pass them on our way to work or while we go about other everyday business, but they are like white noise in the background of our lives. Many of us rarely think to make a special trip to visit and explore them.
Last week, in a conversation with my mother, I was shocked to learn that she had never been to the National Constitution Center, even though it’s been a major tourist site in the city since 2003. When I found out that the critically acclaimed exhibit that brings the story of Prohibition vividly to life, “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” returned to the National Constitution Center for a limited engagement until July 16, I knew it would be the perfect opportunity to go and enjoy a first-class exhibit at one of the most impressive attractions in the Delaware Valley.
The exhibit, created by the National Constitution Center, originally debuted in 2012 and has since toured nationally, including stops at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry, the Grand Rapids Public Museum in Michigan and the Peoria Riverfront Museum in Illinois. Luckily, it’s back and more beautiful than ever before. I know it’s odd to call an exhibit like this “beautiful,” but that’s how my mom and I described it to each other on the ride home. Maybe to better describe it, I should say “beautifully done.”
“American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” has been critically acclaimed for its immersive visitor experience. Visitors can trace how the temperance movement culminated in the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with Wayne Wheeler’s Amazing Amendment Machine, a 20-foot-long, carnival-inspired contraption. They can also step inside a recreated speakeasy to explore the music, dancing, fashion and culture that made the 1920s roar. This was one of my favorite parts of the exhibit and lots of fun. I watched visitors of all ages standing on the outlined footprints, trying to learn the Charleston (I wasn’t as brave as the others to do this publicly). I especially enjoyed watching the teenaged students from the Melvin J. German Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Md., who took a field trip there to see the new exhibit. The students thoroughly enjoyed themselves learning to dance, lining up with prohibition criminals to get their mugshots taken by a real camera there (mugshots get emailed to you afterward) and plying the bartender in the speakeasy with dozens of questions. With Prohibition-era music piped in as you walk around, visitors truly get the whole ambience of the era.
The 5,000-square-foot exhibit features over 100 rare artifacts including a 1929 Buick Marquette. One of the bootleggers’ key innovations was the “Whiskey Six,” six-cylinder cars, such as the Buick Marquette on display, that bootleggers would modify extensively to accommodate illegal cargo and evade authorities. Other featured artifacts include a hatchet used by the famous saloon buster Carry Nation and a telephone used by Roy Olmstead to operate his bootlegging empire. Olmstead, after leaving the Seattle police force, became the most successful bootlegger in the Pacific Northwest. He was also the plaintiff in Olmstead v. United States, one of the most important Fourth Amendment cases to arise during Prohibition. Visitors can also view original ratification copies of the 18th and 21st Amendments; Al Capone’s guilty verdict, which convicted the crime boss of not paying taxes on money earned from his illegal operations; a Prohibition Bureau Badge issued by the Department of Justice; flapper dresses; authentic barware; temperance propaganda; and more.
“We are thrilled to have this superb exhibit back from its national tour,” said President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen, who spoke on the day we visited. “‘American Spirits’ brings the U.S. Constitution to life. Visitors can educate themselves about the constitutional legacy of Prohibition and how to amend the Constitution today.”
The exhibit really is lovely and creatively done. I dug how interactive it was so that it would appeal to every age, background and level of knowledge. Like most people, I remembered the fringe historic facts that I learned back in school about Prohibition and rarely thought of the subject again. However, this time around, I learned it for keeps and thoroughly enjoyed the way it was taught!
As an extra bonus on visiting the Constitution Center this month, visitors can check out all the detailed displays about women. Throughout March, the National Constitution Center is hosting a variety of special programs and exhibits in honor of Women’s History Month. Visitors can explore the museum’s The Story of We the People exhibit to discover defining moments in women’s history, test their knowledge of women’s history at the center’s giant game board activity, and participate in a music video workshop that looks at the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Highlights include a collection of artifacts from Susan B. Anthony and the movement for women’s suffrage.
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia inspires citizenship as the only place where people across America and around the world can come together to learn about, debate and celebrate the greatest vision of human freedom in history, the U.S. Constitution. A private, nonprofit organization, the center serves as America’s leading platform for constitutional education and debate, fulfilling its Congressional charter “to disseminate information about the U.S. Constitution on a nonpartisan basis.” If you’re an attorney, or anyone involved in the law in any way, shape or form and have not yet visited there, this is a complete playground for you! Plan to stay a while if it’s your first visit because there is much to soak in! Since I hope to become an attorney in my next life’s career, I get impressed with the National Constitution Center even more each time that I visit. My mom, a born and raised Philly girl, has not stopped talking about our visit ever since. She was so totally impressed, not just with the great exhibit, but with the whole place!
Former Vice President Joe Biden was recently elected to chair the nonpartisan National Constitution Center. The eyes of the world are on the center every July 4 when the center plays a vital role in America’s birthday celebration and every September when The Liberty Medal is awarded by the National Constitution Center to men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people all over the globe. The medal was first administered by the National Constitution Center in 2006, when Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were honored for their bipartisan humanitarian efforts on behalf of the victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia and the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. The medal’s roster of recipients since then includes many of the men, women and organizations that have shaped and guided the world through the past two decades, including Nelson Mandela, Sandra Day O’Connor, Kofi Annan, Shimon Peres and Colin Powell.
While strolling through the Constitution Center last week, it was interesting overhearing (yes, I am an eavesdropper) the comments of all the school groups going through, examining the exhibits. After the presidential election this past November, the students were very in tune with many of the displays that may have previously gone right over their heads or not interested them in any way. Now, it was all relevant to their lives, which was a good thing. I thought several times during my stroll-through, about what a wonderful field trip and learning opportunity this is for students, especially in middle school and onward.
As the Museum of We the People, the center brings the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages through interactive programs and exhibits. As America’s Town Hall, the center brings the leading conservative and liberal thought leaders together to debate the Constitution on all media platforms. As a center for civic education, the center delivers the best educational programs and online resources that inspire, excite and engage citizens about the U.S. Constitution. For more information, call 215-409-6700 or visit constitutioncenter.org. The museum is at 525 Arch St., Philadelphia, on Independence Mall. The National Constitution Center is open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. And just as a side note, the exhibit is always free for members, active military personnel and all children under 5 years of age.
And just as an aside, if you haven’t heard yet, the brand new Museum of the American Revolution (amrevmuseum.org) is set to open in that same historical hub (101 S. Third St.) on April 19, the anniversary of “the shot heard ’round the world.” Over one hundred years in the making, the museum will explore the dynamic story of the American Revolution using an expansive collection of Revolutionary-era weapons, personal items, documents and works of art. Immersive galleries, theater experiences and recreated historical moments bring to life the events, people and ideals of our nation’s founding and engage people in the history and continuing relevance of the American Revolution.
So if you don’t get to the National Constitution Center this month, be sure to make the trip there in the next several months or even during your summer vacation, when you can maybe check out both historical gems in one day. Either way, don’t ignore the treasure trove that’s, fortunately for all of us, in our own backyard. Grab a friend or your family, and go have a fun learning experience! We really don’t have to travel to far-flung, exotic destinations to have mind-broadening experiences. Truthfully, we just need to stop and take a breather and remember how much is right here in front of us.